Leadership in the Classroom

The title is a bit of a punch in the mouth, isn’t it?  I mean, kids today are often either over-parented, or as a friend of mine calls it, raised by lawn mower parents that clear every obstacle and challenge for their child, or the children are way under-parented.  The result of such a combination frequently plays out in a way that kids from these groups often become peer leaders.  The children of helicopter parents often speak and act out because they feel entitled to positive results.  The children that are largely left to their own also become leaders because they’re used to doing whatever they want, and yet, feel a lack of agency over their own lot in life.  Combine that with the rest of the group who are largely uninterested in school and terrible results seem almost inevitable. 

This will be an uncomfortable topic because the purpose here is to help us all address our own contributions to less than acceptable results.  To be clear, I am not throwing rocks here.  My house is made of glass!  These are ideas and goals, not a standard set by yours truly.  What we are talking about today is leadership.  In the book, Extreme Ownership, the authors state that an undeniable truth about leadership is:

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

There is very little research done on teachers being leaders of students.  There is a ton of research done on leadership in education, and teachers being leaders on campus, but almost none that focuses on the positive effect of improving leadership skills of teachers so they can lead students.  But, it stands to reason that if a teacher can lead students effectively, students will perform well.

The efficacy of a leader is solely measured by the success of those being led. 

What exactly is a leader?  Certainly, leadership requires more than appointment to a position!  There are plenty of managers, administrators, CEOs, presidents, board members, and so on, that are NOT leaders.  According to General Patton:  Leaders move people towards progress in difficult work.

The key word in that definition is move.  There are many ways to move something.  In the classroom, it seems we teachers too often rely on the push to make things happen.  We are encouraged to call home if grades drop, we hold negative consequences over the heads of students.  You need to pass this class or you won’t graduate! 

Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech once where he set up the following cognitive exercise. Consider a large heavy chain piled in a ball resting on top of a table.  If you push that chain, where will it go?  It will move, certainly.  But, will it make a mess, will it knock things down?  What if you grabbed an end and walked away?  The rest of the chain will follow.  The key distinction between a leader and a manager or administrator is that the authority of the leader is willfully granted to them by the followers.  Led people are predictable, but pushed people are unpredictable.

So, a leader moves people towards progress in difficult work and is granted authority over the group by the group.  Thus, a person appointed to a position of leadership is not automatically the leader.  A level of trust must be established.  And, for the leader to be effective, the group must make progress.

A teaching position certainly is a position of authority.  And, progress must be made in difficult work by the students.  It seems that focusing on the development of leadership skills among teachers would have a positive impact in the classroom.

Leading a Team

The book Extreme Ownership articulates how the principles of leadership learned in the military can be successfully applied to civilian life.  The authors, Leif Babin and Jocko Willink, draw heavily on two sources for their book, and their company Echelon Front.  Both men served as Navy Seals, and both learned how to develop leadership while working as trainers in the Navy Seals training programs. 

A natural reaction to the idea of learning leadership from examples in the military is to think, they just do what they’re told without question.  That is an understandable reaction, but about as far from the truth as possible.  People that are asked to put themselves in harm’s way question, heavily!  Without high quality leadership chaos would emerge at the first sign of danger. 

In chapter 2 of the book, Leif Babin shares an experience he observed as a leadership trainer in the Navy Seals’ BUDS training course.  This is the 24-week training course potential applicants must pass in order to make it into the Seals. 

During the most demanding stretch, called Hell Week, aspiring Seals are physically and emotionally pushed to their very limits.  They’re sleep deprived, cold, sore, and tired beyond the point most people can even imagine.  During this Hell Week the sailors are divided into groups that compete against each other.  The idea is to see how well they can work together, communicate, adapt, and work towards mutual goals. 

The teams are assigned by height, and the senior person in each group is the assigned to be the leader of that group.  This creates distinct advantages and disadvantages for each group.  And, it is likely that the senior ranking person is not the most natural leader of the group. 

The competitions required the team carry a large, heavy, and awkwardly balanced rubber raft over obstacles, along long stretches of beach, out into the cold ocean through the breakers, and all under great stress, both physical and emotional.  The winning team was rewarded with a short break where they could sit down and rest, but not sleep.  The losing teams received extra attention, which is highly stressful and often includes physical punishment. 

Leif Babin said that one team, team two, was winning every competition, and it wasn’t usually even close.  Another team stood out equally, but for the opposite reason, team six.  Team six lost every competition and were losing by an increasing margin each round. 

The decision was made to switch the leaders of the teams.  The leader of team two, the winningest team, was assigned to lead team six, the worst team.  The leader of team six was assigned to lead team two. 

The very next race finished with a half mile run along a soft sandy beach in the dark, with each team carrying their boat overhead.  There were two teams distancing the rest of the teams.  They were teams two and six, of course.  Team six won!  From worst to first, by simply changing the leader.  Further, the rest of the competitions were won by either team six or team two, and they were typically tightly contested.

Leif says the reason team six struggled initially was that their leader believed he was given a bad lot.  He didn’t believe they were capable.  Each team member focused on their own suffering and infighting began.  They blamed one another.  In the end, the leader felt he’d been dealt a rotten hand and that there was no way to right the situation.  They were destined to failure.  

That message is delivered, loud and clear, to the rest of the team.  It is human nature to fulfill expectations.  The attitude alone can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is how a person in a position of leadership with a victim’s attitude can splinter any cohesion and foster an environment of infighting and blaming. 

When that leader moved to team two, he believed he had his lucky break.  The healthy cohesive atmosphere already existed there with each person taking responsibility for everything they could and encouraging each other to perform well.  When someone stumbled, blame wasn’t assigned, help was offered.  Further, the stronger members took it upon themselves to proactively compensate for the lacking contributions of the weaker members, putting the team goal ahead of all else.  Instead of thinking, I’ve got to pick up the slack for this dude and he gets equal reward even though I’ve done more, the focus is, This is what I need to do for the team to succeed.

When the new leader arrived for team six he brought short term, achievable goals, and encouragement.  During the competitions he would say, “Let’s go as hard as we can from here to that nearest marker as a team.  Help your buddy, we can do this.”   As they achieved each little goal, confidence grew, and the group began to function effectively.  They carried along the weakest members, instead of pointing them out as slowing down the group.  As such, junior leaders took charge of sub-teams that existed within the entire group. 

The leader of team two broke the large goal down into achievable, specific goals, and he coached the members on what to do to meet those intermediate goals.  He set the tone, and the group reflected that positive attitude back.  They worked together and flipped the script.

Leif did mention that the initial leader of team six later used the experience to understand his failings as a leader, and corrected them.  He passed the program and went on to be a successful leader in the Seals organization.  In life, if we can make tomorrow better in response to the mistakes we made yesterday, we’re on the right track.

The take-away is this.  A leader is responsible for the outcomes earned by the group.  Regardless of obstacles and short-comings of the group, the leader is responsible for moving that group to make meaningful progress in difficult work! 

You might be thinking that there’s a big difference between a sports team, or corporate project.  A class roster of students is not populated by volunteers interested in the outcomes of that class.  Students are assigned to classes that they are compelled to take.  That is completely irrelevant as it does not change the desired outcomes.  It only informs the starting point.

As teachers we face many situations that make academic success very difficult.  Those situations are beyond our control.  It is not our fault that a large portion of students are disinterested and unmotivated, that they lack the foundations in academic understanding as well as student skills.  However, it is our responsibility to make the most of what we have to work with.  It is our responsibility to address those short-comings, not cite them as the reason for failure.  That’s our beginning, the road we begin on, it does not determine our destination.

Who is Responsible for Students that Fail?

As I mentioned earlier, I am not the shining example of how to execute these ideas.  These are goals I am working towards.  That said, I’d like to share a brief story that comes to mind in response to the discussion regarding leading a team.

The school where I worked was failing.  The biggest issue was low scores in math on the standardized tests.  I taught math, but at the upper levels, not the tested levels (9th and 10th grades were tested).  The state stepped in to turn things around.  The playbook called for the administrative team to be replaced, and for 50% of the teachers to be let go.  It was ugly. 

I was asked if I’d move down to teach 9th grade, Algebra 1 and help develop a program that would produce results to bring our math scores up to at least the state average.  I agreed to the challenge reluctantly, I really liked teaching pre-calculus. 

The task at hand was important to me.  I wanted to do a good job.  I set the standard high and worked hard to get students to pass.  As a result of an increased standard and my short-comings, the failure rate for the class went from less than 5% to almost 30%.  Before, only 5% of students failed to earn credit for the class, even though only about 3% of the students passed the state test.  I was okay with the results as I believed the 70% that were passing the class were on the right track.  There was little I could do for the rest. They chose not to get on board. 

I do not believe that students that fail Algebra 1 fail because the math is too difficult and the concepts are inaccessible.  There are a lot of contributing issues, but the level of complexity of the math is not one of them.  The perception of the complexity might be, but that’s a different story.  I felt the 70% had made great progress and there was little I could do for the rest.

At the beginning of the second semester the new principal called me to her office.  She and another assistant principal wanted to talk about the failure rate in my class.  It got heated, quickly.  I felt entirely unappreciated as well as unjustly attacked.  After all, I didn’t ask for that position.  I was recruited to move to this class and set things up.  I fought tooth and nail to change the standards and academic atmosphere and we were making great progress towards bringing the school’s math scores up!  I remember thinking, “This is how I’m repaid?” 

The principal, who later became a close friend of mine, said, “You cannot have 30% of your students failing. You are not doing a good job.  You have failed to reach those students.”

I felt like I was being bullied, and shot back, “You’re looking at the 30% failure rate, but when 70% of those freshman pass the standardized test, you’ll make me teacher of the year!”

As you can imagine, we didn’t come to an amicable arrangement that day. 

The thing is, we were both right, and wrong, in a way.  I believe that confrontation could have been handled more professionally by both of us.  However, that exchange really struck a nerve with me.  It seemed totally unfair.  But, she was right.  Of course I didn’t want 30% to fail.  They were obdurate.  They passed classes in the past by earning extra credit and memorizing answers to be regurgitated on test re-takes.  I did my best to get them all to change.  I got the overwhelming majority on board and washed my hands of responsibility.  I was their teacher, but not their leader.  They weren’t willingly following me and my response was to find reasons to absolve my role in their failure.

Now, some students will willfully work against any academic expectation.  Some will not get on board until it’s too late.  Some are severely limited in their potential for a number of reasons.  But, as the teacher, their success is your responsibility.

Let me be clear about this.  Their learning is not your responsibility.  Their grades are a reflection of their learning.  You cannot learn for them, and dragging them through the hoops will not do the trick.  That’s what was done when 95% of students passed the math classes while only 3% passed the state test.  Students were being pushed, like the balled chain, they weren’t willfully following and taking up responsibility on their own.  However, their success in learning is the responsibility of the teacher as their leader.

Sometimes we will fail. 

In response to the call-out by my principal, I sat down and thought about each and every one of those students.   I made a list where I categorized why each kid failed.  Initially, I wanted to absolve myself of any responsibility.  Look, these 8 kids missed 15 days of school.   These 5 are in special education, and this lot were suspended repeatedly from school.  And every one of these 20 students are failing 3 or more classes each!

It is true that I cannot control any of those issues.  Those are not my fault.  However, what I realized was that I had used those issues as a reason to step away from those efforts.  Instead of taking responsibility for the situation and helping those students work through whatever obstacles were unique to them, I played the victim.  For that group, I was like the original leader of team six.

That is a disproportionate evaluation when considering that my classes far exceeded the state average on the standardized test that year.  That was a huge victory.  However, I owe it to all of my students to give them my best effort and to develop a better system by which all students are involved and included.  While I have improved on this account, it is a perpetual struggle.

Leaders Set the Standard of Acceptable Behavior

Leadership is the single greatest factor in any team’s performance.  A quality teacher is the also greatest single contributing factor, outside of home-life, to student academic success. 

Babin says, “The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team.  The leader drives performance or doesn’t.  And this applies not to just the most senior overall leader of the team but to junior leaders of teams within the team.”

One of the ways I failed the 30% of my students that had failing grades is that I allowed their low performances to establish the standard of acceptable performance.  I was 100% correct in adjusting the level of difficult and pace of the class to make it match that of the standardized test, but that’s a managerial capacity.  As the teacher, I needed to also act as their leader. 

In the story of the two teams, team two and team six, the natural leader did a few things that greatly contributed to the success of his teams.  He led by example, taking up the most difficult role.  But, he also made sure that everybody else executed their roles correctly.  This was not done in a heavy handed way.  Instead of yelling and correcting, it was made clear to the subordinate that (1) they could successfully accomplish the task and that (2) the success of the entire team depended on each member’s individual success, and then (3) made them repeat the task with intermediate goals until they performed to the standard required.  Failing to accomplish was not acceptable.  The expectation was to succeed because it was attainable, well defined, and they were focused. 

What we, as teachers, say is the standard in our classes is not what actually sets the standard.  What we truly expect sets the standard.  We communicate our expectations through action, not words.  This is tricky, so let’s break down an example.

Suppose the expectation of students is that they put their name on their assignment.  That seems reasonable, and something that can be accomplished.  A common response, by teachers, to students that fail to write their name is to punish the student.  They either receive a reduced score, or they get a zero.  But, the behavior has not been corrected.  Punishment alone rarely corrects behavior. 

To a student that receives a zero for not putting their name on the paper, the message is, you can turn things in without your name.  Sure, you’ll get yelled at and get a bad grade, but you can still do it.  It’s fine. 

Another example, is tardiness or truancy.  A student that shows up late to class might be punished, but again, that rarely corrects the behavior. 

What needs to happen, punishment or not, is correction, then re-engagement with the activity.  In each case it needs to made clear that the student is capable or fulfilling the expectation, that it is important to the entire group that they do so, and that they can follow these steps to correct their bad habits.

You are perfectly capable of arriving to class on time, just like everybody else.  What it says to the entire class when you’re late is that you playing around between classes is more important than the success of every single student.  When you, or anybody else, is late, it hurts the progress of the entire class.  We are here for a purpose and have to take care of the small things, like showing up on time and participating, in order for the big rewards to be there. We start class on time here, I expect you to be on time tomorrow.  Can you do that?

How to correct low academic performance can easily be misunderstood.  A student that fails to pass a test needs to correct the behaviors that promoted that outcome, not just fix the performance on the test.  They need to adjust their student behaviors.  This will secure improved outcomes the next time.  The idea here is NOT to have them write the correct answers on the test.  A good leader will make it clear to the student that (1) they are capable of improving, (2) the success of the entire class depends on their participation, and (3), they need a plan of action to help them improve.

When I accept that students don’t do their homework and do not confront them about it, the message is clear.  It is permissible to not do homework in Mr. Brown’s class.  However, when I address each and every student every time they fail to do their work, the expectation that homework will be done in this class is made clear.  The message needs to be one of moving in a positive direction, working towards a team goal, and providing tools that can be used by the student to improve their performance.

This homework is complete.  That is unacceptable.  If you had a problem, like an emergency at home, you should have contacted me before class.  You need to do this homework and bring it tomorrow with the homework that is assigned today.  If you fall behind on homework, you guarantee to do poorly on the quiz!  Can you do that?

While it is true that teachers encounter so many students with so many factors contributing to their failure, it is equally true that it is our responsibility to take ownership of the task of creatively working to find solutions.  By doing so, we fulfill our obligation to all of our students, a team dynamic is established, positive peer-leaders are developed within the classroom, and students increasingly grant authority to you as their leader as trust is developed.   

Let’s put a bow on this. 

A teaching position is a leadership position, but being a teacher does not automatically make someone a leader.  A leader’s authority is granted to them by the body they’re leading, they willingly follow.  A leader’s job is to take responsibility for all problems and work to find solutions so that the group can make meaningful progress with difficult work. 

The leader sets the standard of acceptable performance by their actions.  A true expectation is unwavering.  In order to help students to fulfill expectations some interventions might be necessary.  It might be necessary to clearly articulate the purpose of a task and show how individual performance promotes whole-class success.  It might be required that a small, short-termed goal receives great focus and effort because that can set everybody in the right direction.  Success can be built upon. 

If any of what was shared here resonates with you, please let me know.  Leave me a comment below.  Be sure to check out of Facebook group, podcast, YouTube channel and website.  The links to all of those things can be found at https://onteaching.org